Swimming With Parks

John Emory Parks of NOAA.

What specific actions would you recommend for a family with four kids who really want to make a positive difference in their environment?    — Debbie Potts, Perry Hall, Md.

Here are several minor things that we do at home with our kids, Debbie. While they are minor, they all really add up! I should mention that they are also things I did growing up.

  • Plant and care for a vegetable garden.
  • Compost all year long.
  • Reduce waste and reuse packaging materials creatively.
  • Recycle what you can.
  • Plant native trees.
  • If you have a backyard, learn about how to create habitat that will attract native critters; when they show up, watch them and learn about them together through field guides and other family-friendly books.
  • Do family activities outside, all year long; create enjoyable family traditions around being outdoors that become routine and predictable.
  • Go hiking frequently, at least once each season; talk about the changes you see happening.
  • Go camping, if possible and interested; start in your own backyard or neighborhood.
  • Eat meals outside when possible.
  • Go canoeing or kayaking as a family.

To take things up a step, here are some additional actions one can do as a family:

  • For those of you who are fortunate enough to own a home, set up a water catchment system using your rain gutters and use this water for outdoor watering of the garden or lawn.
  • If possible, install solar panels on your home/apartment and reap the rewards of the sun (we’ve been doing this for over four years now, and it’s well worth the time and investment to do it).
  • Start a community garden in your neighborhood, or join one and get active.
  • Start a neighborhood enviro group, and take local action frequently, even if it is only on minor issues or scope.
  • Offer to organize and sponsor chaperoned nature field trips for youngsters who otherwise might not be able to go on them.
  • Offer to organize (invite guest speakers) or give lectures on environmental topics once a month at your community center.
  • Get involved in local Earth Day event planning every year, particularly in schools.
  • Volunteer to serve on or get involved in your local community government/council; found a committee to address environmental issues locally.
  • Volunteer at your local botanical garden or arboretum.
  • Volunteer your time to researchers who must regularly collect field data.
  • Volunteer some of your weekend time and energies to a nonprofit organization that you believe in and that makes you feel good to be a part of; get involved with a zoo or aquarium.
  • Learn how and found a nonprofit conservation organization that acts locally.
  • Learn about, contact, and volunteer how you can with your local, state, and federal agencies that are responsible for natural-resource management and parks.

If you have any questions on these or would like additional suggestions, just let me know. The fact that you are asking and your kids are willing means that you are 90 percent ahead of most.

Since it can be both a blessing and a curse, what role do you see aquaculture playing in the conservation of our ocean resources, and how best can it be used?    — Robert Freudenberg, New York, N.Y.

About one-fifth of the world’s population relies exclusively on fish as its main source for dietary protein and balanced nutrition. Whereas 30 years ago, the developed countries of the North consumed much of the fish caught in the world, today it is the developing South that is increasingly both producing and consuming much of global fishery resources, a trend projected to continue.

At the same time, global production of fish has hit a plateau. We have rapidly exhausted the world supply of wild fish stocks, despite a rising global human population and increasing food-consumption needs.

These factors suggest that, like the agricultural revolution that took place on land, humanity has no choice but to depend on aquaculture to supply food for the growing number of hungry mouths in the world, both poor and affluent. As this shift toward culture and away from wild harvest occurs, many people are asking the question that Robert has posed: How can we make aquaculture work for conservation, and not against it?

I am not certain the answer will be what we are hoping for. For aquaculture to offset, as opposed to merely supplement, the wild harvest of marine resources, at a minimum it will need to be economically more attractive than wild harvest (i.e., return higher profit margins) while also being effectively marketable to consumers. The consumer side may be less of an issue in the hungry South than in the affluent North, where there has been much attention and (sometimes erroneous) speculation that a refined palate will not choose farm-raised fish over wild. But even if aquaculture technologies and the science of fish husbandry become highly refined and competitive business operations (as, in some cases, they already have) that generate products consumers will buy over wild-caught options, the environmental impacts of such efforts may be as bad as, or even worse than, wild harvests.

In the end, I think that aquaculture is an inevitability that marine managers will increasingly be asked to integrate into their existing wild-area and wildlife management duties. In some cases, fish farming will be a benefit to management efforts and support conservation aims. In other cases, it will not.

Could you comment more on how you think becoming more “media-savvy” will help the environmental movement?    — Robert Freudenberg, New York, N.Y.

In the same way that conservative Republican interests have been carefully, methodically, and successfully integrated into American values and public interests, so too must environmental interests, most often characterized as liberal. Despite the overwhelming facts, the environment was not even a key issue for swing voters in the recent presidential election.

A long-term, strategic public communications focus (similar to what was initiated 10 years ago by conservatives) is needed immediately if the environmental reforms and management actions necessary to encourage an ecologically and environmentally sustainable future are to come to pass. A major piece of this public outreach strategy will hinge on the effective and systematic use of mass media vehicles to “get the message out” and change public opinion and priorities.

George Lakoff, enviro-communications buff and U.C. Berkeley linguistics professor extraordinaire, has written and spoken much on this topic. As he likes to say, “words matter.” That is, how we say it and how it is heard is just as important as what we say. You can read more about these ideas in a provocative pre-election interview he gave to Sierra magazine.

Is it enough to provide the public with the facts about the environment and the dangers it faces, or do we really need to start earlier and focus on critical-thinking abilities? Do you think quality time spent in nature is necessary to acquiring an environmental ethic?     — Carolyn Heath, Newport Beach, Calif.

No, I don’t think it is enough to simply present the facts to the public. If it were, our country’s top priority would be abating the suite of human-made threats currently contributing to the annihilation of some organisms and ecosystems. Beyond strategic communications and the effective use of mass media (see above), we do indeed need to deliberately and consistently engender a conservation ethic in our youth. Educators will need to facilitate hands-on engagement with nature.

However, I don’t think one has to have spent significant childhood time in nature or wilderness settings to gain an appreciation for the environment. In fact, social research is telling us that in some cases, such exposure is not necessarily predictive of one’s environmental beliefs or attitudes.

Given that the environmental movement has not enjoyed decisive success as a liberal cause, how do we disconnect from ideological agendas to better communicate with a broader portion of the population? Put another way, is the fact that the environmental movement is seen as a liberal issue an obstruction to more decisive success?    — Eileen Eva, Silver Spring, Md.

As a community, environmentalists need to move the discussion out of the academic context and into the living rooms of all Americans. This will require a departure from the traditional liberal home base of environmental thought and practice, and into new territory across the broad spectrum of American ideology and political disposition. If environmentalism remains a liberal issue discussed largely by a (perceived) educated elite, I fear much will be lost before a broad and diverse coalition comes together to act.

To challenge yourself to think more about this issue, I encourage you to read “The Death of Environmentalism” [PDF], by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus.

I have spent the last three months studying in India, Nepal, and Chinese-occupied Tibet. The environment is my passion, but all my efforts of finding environmental activism, or even awareness, in these parts of Asia have come up short. In your work in Asia, do you find that the majority of the environmental work comes from outside influences, or is there any sort of homegrown action? How, as a student and traveler, would I be able to positively influence this?    — Breanna Trygg, McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, India

My philosophy in my work is simple: The most effective solutions come from integration rather than assimilation. In addition to patience and time, this approach requires two things: (1) a firm belief in and commitment to participatory problem-solving and management; and (2) the ability to consciously set aside, or at least be keenly aware of controlling, one’s own agenda and interests until invited to present them.

A good literature resource for facilitating “homegrown action” with an educational spin can be found in the International Institute for Environment and Development’s Participatory Learning and Action series (formally PLA Notes), which I frequently cite and from which I draw inspiration. You can learn more about PLA theory and techniques at the IIED’s website.

Where is this well you dip into when the things you care most about are dying? I need it. You sound so sane and balanced.    — L.D., Warrenville, Ill.

I think that through some careful, internal listening on a regular basis, each of us can find a mechanism or place that can help us refill, get centered, and make us believe in the world again. For some people, faith has this effect. For others, it is meditation. I believe that this is a personal determination, one that must be discovered individually.

As much as being human is to feel pain and suffer, it is also to have hope. Next to love, hope is what seems to me most noble and special about being human. It distinguishes us from the rest of nature. It allows us to better ourselves, as well as the world around us. I guess it’s not so much about remaining sane or balanced as it is about seeking out and finding hope, and then fighting to hold onto it.

Given the lack of consensus among the world’s countries on other environmental issues, how do you propose that conservation efforts be effective in dealing with the world’s vast waters? How do you see management policies being enacted on such a wide scale?    — Kate Semmens

The oceans are often viewed as “common property” — that is, shared and owned equally by all nations and peoples. This view is currently upheld in practice, both de facto (the high seas are notorious havens for largely uncontrolled natural resource extraction) and de jure (through toothless international law and agreements).

But times are changing. The days when the oceans were seen as limitless frontiers, teeming with boundless stocks of fish and other wildlife, are long gone. The crisis currently facing the world’s seas is being squarely shaped and defined as a human one. Whether it’s the overharvesting of fish stocks or marine pollution, as an individual species we are fundamentally altering the ability of the oceans to sustain life.

The old thinking about the ocean is slowly giving way to a new vision. “Privatization” would be too strong a word, but the issues facing our oceans today require a governance reconfiguration. A multinational, transboundary governance regime will be needed.

This might seem odd to some readers. But think of an American analogy: Even during colonial times, the lands west of the Mississippi were viewed by newcomers as a wild, limitless frontier. But slowly, those frontier lands were subjected to the effects of increasing human populations, economic growth, and technological advances. Eventually, the “frontier” disappeared. In its place now stands a highly convoluted system of private and public property, including local, state, and national parks and recreation areas.

The same will likely happen within our oceans. What was once an open ocean frontier is slowly being divided up among private (i.e., national) and public (transnational) interests. If you’d like to learn more about international oceans governance issues, I’ll offer the names of two colleagues who are experts on the topic here at NOAA: (1) for the U.S. perspective on these issues, contact Tom Laughlin; (2) for a global perspective, contact my boss, Bud Ehler.

If big conservation were to truly reflect the wants and needs of local resource-dependent communities, would they have to quit conservation and start building schools and health centers instead? What does your experience tell us?    — Cristina Balboa, New Haven, Conn.

You see what’s happening here, folks? Cristina is throwing me a curveball — but that’s okay, because she’s a good friend and a sharp thinker doing some very exciting doctoral research up at Yale on the accountability of nonprofit international conservation organizations. If you think Mac Chapin has a strong and thoughtful critique on this topic (see his World Watch article mentioned in my first set of answers), wait until you read the book Cristina is going to publish.

For me, conservation is largely a Western concept that does not necessarily apply or transfer to all cultures or nations. In many cases, “conservation” work ceases to be conservation once wheels touch down in a foreign country. My work often (but not always) becomes as much about identifying and negotiating mutual interests as it is about embracing Western ideological concepts or foreign policy.

In some cases, a community or national organization may be carrying out a conservation project that receives funding and/or technical support from the overseas group I represent. Often, there is an unspoken understanding that the conservation interests I represent are beneficial in that they also serve local development needs. Sometimes this negotiation of interests is explicit — for example, when a grant is given to protect valuable biodiversity while also generating local income and other, non-cash benefits. Other times, this negotiation is subtle, or even hidden — for example, when a conservation project is invited into a country to open up a steady flow of foreign aid revenues, even beyond the project itself. Either way, there are expectations on both sides of the overseas partnership that are, if not explicit, at least implied.

Participatory planning and management requires time and trust between the parties involved. Expectations, whether explicit or implied, can be raised, openly (even if indirectly) discussed, and fully vetted. It is a tool for encouraging equity in local management decisions and action. It may not be totally efficient or refined, but at least it encourages transparency. This issue, I believe, gets to the heart of why many international conservation efforts and organizations are coming under increasing public scrutiny.

“Conservation for whom?” is not an easy question for international professionals like me to ask ourselves. But we need to get better at doing it.

My burning question is: Can you surf in the Potomac River? If not, what are you doing to keep your skills sharp until you return to the Pacific?    — Matthew Klingle, Brunswick, Maine

Dear Professor Klingle, (note: like Cristina, Matt is a friend)

If you spent less time studying, teaching, and writing award-winning environmental history, and more time outside, you’d know that the Potomac River actually drains into a large, nearby body of water called the Atlantic Ocean. Being in Maine, you may have heard of it. The Atlantic Ocean is subject to, as with all of earth’s seas, tidal fluctuations caused by the gravity effects of the moon and the rotation of the earth. Combined with the transfer of heat, evaporation of sea surface water, and effects of wind, these tidal fluctuations help to make waves, even in the Atlantic. During the warmer months, this provides my family and I with ample opportunity to partake in surfing.

Put down the book, and come on down. I’ll take you out so you can get up on a board yourself. You’ll never look at the Maine coastline the same way again.

Parks answers these questions as an individual, not as an official representative of NOAA or the U.S. government.